Under the Harrow

Flynn Berry

January 15, 2016 
The following is from Flynn Berry's novel, Under the Harrow, aand is also one of the 40 pre-publication excerpts presented in Buzz Books 2016: Spring/Summer. Berry is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers and has been awarded a Yaddo residency. Under the Harrow is her first novel.

A woman is missing in the East Riding. She vanished from Hedon, near the village where we grew up. When Rachel learns of the disappearance, she’ll think it’s him.

The hanging sign for the Surprise, a painting of a clipper ship on a green sea, creaks in the wind outside. The pub stands on a quiet road in Chelsea. After finishing the job on Phene Street, I came for lunch and a glass of white wine. I work as an assistant to a landscaper. Her specialty is in meadows. They look like they haven’t been landscaped at all.

On screen, a reporter moves through the park where the woman was last seen. Police and dogs fan out across the hills behind the town. I could tell Rachel about her tonight, though it would ruin our visit. It might not have anything to do with what happened to her, anyway. The woman might not have even come to harm.

The builders at the house across the road have finished eating, the white paper bags balled at their feet, and are leaning back against the steps in the cold sunshine.

I wait, with my coat on and my scarf wrapped around my neck, even though I should have already left for the train to Oxford, while a detective from the station in Hull asks the public to come forward with any information about the disappearance.

When the broadcast moves to the storm in the north, I leave under the hanging ship and turn on the next corner towards Royal Hospital Road. I walk past the trimmed squares of Burton Court. Past the estate agent’s. Sunny homes in Chelsea and Kensington. I still live in a tower block in Kilburn. The stairwell forever smelling of fresh paint, seagulls diving at the balconies. I don’t have a garden, obviously. The cobbler’s children have no shoes, etc.

On Sloane Street, people mill around in the warm shops. Blurry orbs of light glow on the sides of buildings, reflected from the facing windows. The bookshop displays a pile of new translations of The Thousand and One Nights.

In one of the stories, a magician drank a potion made from an herb that kept him young. The problem was that the herb only grew at the top of a mountain, and so every year the magician tricked a youth into climbing the mountain. Throw down the herb, said the magician. Then I’ll come get you. The youth threw down the herb. I can’t remember the end. That may have been it. I’ve forgotten the ending for most of the stories, except the important one, that Scheherazade lives.

A few minutes on the tube, and then I am back out again, hiking up the stairs to Paddington station. I buy my ticket and a bottle of red wine at Whistlestop.

On the platform, the train engines hum. I wish Rachel would move to London. “But then you wouldn’t get to come here,” she says, and I do love her house, an old farmhouse on a shallow hill, with two ancient elms on either side of it. The sound of the elms soughing in the wind fills the upstairs bedrooms. And she likes living there, living alone. Two years ago she almost got married. “Close brush,” she called it.

On the train, I press my head against the seat and watch the winter fields pass by the window. The sky is grey with a ribbon of purple at the horizon. It’s colder here, outside the city. You can see it on the faces of people waiting at the local stations. A thin stream of air whistles through a crack at the bottom of the pane. The train is a lighted capsule, travelling through the charcoal landscape.

Two boys in hoods run alongside my carriage. Before I draw level with them, they jump a low wall and disappear down the berm. The train plunges through a tight hedge. In summer, it turns the light in the carriage green and flickering, like being underwater. Now, the hedge is bare enough that the light doesn’t change at all. I can see small birds in the gaps of the branches, framed by vines.

A few weeks ago Rachel mentioned that she plans to raise goats. She said the hawthorn tree at the bottom of her garden was perfect for them to climb on. She already has a dog, a large German shepherd. “How will Fenno feel about the goats?” I asked.

“Demented with happiness, probably,” she said.

I wonder if all goats climb trees, or only certain types. I didn’t believe her until she showed me pictures of a goat balanced at the edge of a fan of cedar, and a group of them in a white mulberry. None of the pictures showed how the goats climbed the tree, though. “They use their hooves, Nora,” said Rachel, which doesn’t make any sense.

A woman comes down the aisle with a trolley and I buy a Twix bar for myself and an Aero for Rachel. Our father called us greedy little girls. “Too right,” said Rachel.

I watch the fields trundle by. Tonight I’ll tell her about my artist’s residency, to start two months from now in the middle of January. Twelve weeks in France, with lodging and a tiny bursary. I applied with a play that I wrote at university called The Robber Bridegroom. It’s embarrassing that I haven’t done anything better since then, but that no longer matters because in France I will write something new. Rachel will be pleased for me. She will pour us a celebratory drink. Later, over dinner, she will describe her week at work. I still haven’t decided whether to tell her about the missing woman.

The train sounds its horn, a long, low call, as it passes through the chalk hills. I try to remember what Rachel said she would cook tonight. I see her moving around in her kitchen, shifting the massive slate bowl of chestnuts to the edge of the counter. Coq au vin and polenta, I think.

She likes to cook, partly because of her job. She says her patients talk all the time about food, now that they can’t eat what they want. They often ask what she makes, and she likes to give them a good answer.

Clay roofs and chimney pots rise above a high brick wall alongside me, and then it wraps around, enclosing the village. Past the wall is a field of dry shrubs and hedges with a few paths tunnelling through them. At its edge, a man in a green hat tends a trash fire. Charred leaves rise on the draughts and spin into the white sky, floating over the field.

From my bag, I take out the folder of properties to let in Cornwall. Over the summer, Rachel and I rented a house in Polperro. Both of us have time off at Christmas and plan to book a house this weekend.

Polperro is built into the folds of a coastal ravine. Whitewashed houses with flat fronts and slate roofs nestle in the green rivulets. Between the two cliffs is a harbour and, past a sea wall, an inner harbour, large enough for maybe a dozen small sailing boats, with houses and pubs built to the water’s edge on the quay. When the tide is out, the boats in the inner harbour rest on their hulls in the mud. On the western hook of the ravine are two square merchant’s houses—one a tweed-brown brick, the other white. Above them, umbrella pines stand outlined against the sky. Past the merchant’s houses, on the point, a fisherman’s croft is built into the rocks. The croft is made of rough granite, so on foggy days it blurs into the stones around it. The house we rented was on a headland ten minutes’ walk along the coast path from Polperro, and included a private staircase with seventy-one steps built up the cliff from the beach.

I loved Cornwall with a mad, jealous ardour. I was twenty-nine and had only just discovered it, but it belonged to me. The list of things I loved about Cornwall was long but not complete.

It included our house of course, and the town; the Lizard Peninsula, and the legend of King Arthur, whose seat was a few miles up the coast at Tintagel. The town of Mousehall, pronounced mouzall. Daphne du Maurier and Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again, and of course you did, anyone who left here would. The widow’s walks. The photographs of wrecks, and of townspeople in long brown skirts and jackets, dwarfed by the ruined hulls, that decorated the pubs.

Every day the list had to be rewritten. I added the umbrella pines and the Crumplehorn Inn. Cornish pasties and Cornish ale. Swimming, both in open water and in the quiet, dripping caves. Every minute, really, even the ones when we were asleep.

“Everything’s better here,” I said. And Rachel said, “Well.”

“What’s your favourite thing about Cornwall?” I asked, and she groaned. “Or I can tell you mine.”

But then she said, “Well to start, there’s the ocean.”

If anything, she loved it more than I did, and she is even more excited than I am to go back. She hasn’t been herself lately. She seems frayed by her work, and always tired.

At the next station, the conductor warns the riders of possible delays tomorrow from the storm. Excellent, I think, so it is going to snow.

We pass through another town, and the cars now have their headlights switched on, pale yellow marbles in the weak afternoon light, and then the train curves around a poplar hedge and straightens as it pulls into Marlow.

Rachel isn’t at the station. This isn’t unusual. Her shifts at the hospital often run late. I leave the platform under a light so dull that the roofs of the town already seem to be dusted with snow. I walk away from town towards her house, and soon I am on the open stretch of the road, a narrow tarmac ribbon between farms.

I wonder if she is walking to meet me with Fenno. The bottle of red wine thumps against my back. A car drives towards me, and I step onto the verge. It slows to a crawl as it approaches, and the woman behind the wheel nods at me, then accelerates down the road.

I walk faster, my breath warming my chest, my cold fingers curled in my pockets. Heavy clouds mass overhead, and in the quiet the air takes on a tinnitus ring.

And then her house is in sight. I climb the hill, and the gravel crunches under my feet. Her car is parked in the drive, she must have just gotten home. I open her door.

I stumble back before I know what is wrong with the house, like something has flown out at me.

The first thing I see is the dog. The dog is hanging by his lead from the top of the stairs. The rope creaks as the dog slowly rotates. For a moment, I am stunned. How did you do that, I wonder.

His lead is wrapped around a post on the banister. He must have tangled it and fallen, strangling himself.

But there is blood on the floor and the walls.

I am hyperventilating, though everything around me is calm, and still. It is urgent that I do something, but I don’t know what. I don’t call for Rachel.

I climb the stairs. There is a stripe of blood on the wall just below my shoulder, like someone sagged against it while climbing. When the stripe ends, there are red handprints on the step above it, and the next step, and then on the landing.

In the upstairs hallway, the stains turn messy. I don’t see any handprints. It looks like someone crawled or was dragged. I stare at the stains and then, after some time, I look down the hall.

I can hear myself keening as I crawl towards her. The front of her shirt is black and wet, and I gently lift her onto my lap. I put my hand to her neck, trying to feel her pulse, then lower my ear to her face to hear her breathing. My cheek brushes her nose and chills sweep down my neck. I blow air into her mouth and pump on her chest, then stop. It might cause more damage.

I bend my forehead to Rachel’s and the hallway goes dark. My breath rolls on her skin and into her hair. The hall closes around us.

My phone never has service in her house. I’ll have to go outside to call an ambulance. I can’t leave her, but then I am stumbling down the stairs, and through the door.

As soon as the call ends, I can’t remember what I said. There is no one in either direction, just her neighbours’ houses and the ridge behind them, and in the humming quiet I think I can hear the sea. The sky roils above me. I look up. Put my hands to my head. My ears ring as if someone is shouting very loudly.

I somehow expect Rachel to appear in the doorway. Her face confused and exhausted, her eyes fixing on mine. I am listening for the soft pad of her footsteps when I hear the sirens.

She has to come downstairs before the ambulance arrives. It will be fin- ished when someone else sees her. I silently beg her to come down. The sirens grow louder, and my ears lift away from my jaw like I am grinning. I watch the door for her.

And then the ambulance is in view, racing down the road between the farms. It comes up her drive, gravel spraying from its tyres, and when the doors open and the paramedics run to me, I can’t speak. The first paramedic enters the house and the second asks if I am wounded. I look down, and my shirt is stained with blood. When I don’t answer, he begins to examine me.

I pull away from him and run up the stairs behind the first paramedic. Rachel’s face is turned to the ceiling, her dark hair pooling on the floor, her arms at her sides. I can see her feet, in thick woollen socks. I want to crawl around the woman and squeeze them between my hands.

The paramedic points at a place on Rachel’s neck, then touches the same place on herself, under her jaw. I can’t hear her over the sounds I am making. She helps me down the steps. She opens the ambulance doors and settles me on its ledge, and puts a foil wrapper around my shoulders. The wet on my shirt turns cold, plasters the fabric to my stomach. My teeth chatter. The paramedic switches on a fan so heat pours from the ambulance behind me, warming my back, escaping in vapours into the cold air.

Soon patrol cars arrive, the police in black uniforms gathering on the road and coming up the lawn. I stare at them, my eyes streaking from one face to the next. Static crackles from someone’s belt. I wait for one of them to smile, and give the game away. A constable lowers a stake into the dirt and runs tape across the door, the ribbon bobbing up and down as it unspools behind him.

The edges of my vision go soft, then disappear entirely. I am so tired. I try to keep watching the police so I can tell Rachel what this was like.

The sky foams, like the spindrift of a huge unseen wave is bearing down on us. Who did this to you, I wonder, but that isn’t the important thing, the important thing is that you come back. At the house across the road, the open barn where they usually park is empty. An Oxford professor lives there. “The gentleman farmer,” Rachel calls him. Beyond the profes- sor’s house, the ridge is an almost vertical cliff face, with steep paths cut into the stone. I stare at the ridge until it seems to come loose and start to drift closer.

No one goes into the house. They are all waiting for someone. The constable who ran the tape stands in front, guarding the entrance. In the paddock next door to the professor’s house, a woman rides a horse. Her cottage stands behind the paddock, near the foot of the ridge. The horse and rider gallop in a great circle under the darkening sky.

As the woman leans forward into the wind, I wonder if she can see us. The house, the ambulance, the uniformed police standing on the lawn.

A door slams at the bottom of the driveway and a man and woman step onto the gravel. Everyone watches the pair advance up the hill. They both wear tan coats, their hands in their pockets, their coattails blowing behind them. Their gaze is trained on the house, then the woman looks in my direction and our eyes catch. I am buffeted by wind, cold air. The woman lifts the tape and enters the house. I close my eyes. I hear footsteps approaching on the gravel. The man kneels down next to me. He waits.

Colour sweeps over my eyelids. It will settle soon to black, and then I will hear the elm trees rustling overhead. If I go into the kitchen, I’ll see our dishes in the sink and on the hob. The scrapings of polenta dried to the bottom of the pot. The chestnut skins on the counter, dropped where we pulled them off, burning our fingers.

If I go to her room, I’ll see the shadows of the southern-planted elm flickering on the boards. The dog asleep sprawled below the bed, near enough that Rachel can drop her arm over the edge of the mattress and pet him.

I open my eyes.


From UNDER THE HARROW. Used with permission of Penguin Books. Copyright © 2016 by Flynn Berry.

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